Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘politics’

17 MARCH, 2015

Nobel Laureate Nadine Gordimer on Freedom and What Status Really Means for a Writer

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“All worthwhile writing… comes from an individual vision, privately pursued.”

Wendell Berry defined freedom as a kind of coherence with oneself. For Joni Mitchell, it is a creative luxury. For comedian Bill Hicks, it is a matter of affording people the right “to say exactly those ideas which you do not agree with.” But what does freedom mean, really — for a writer, for an artist, for a human being?

That’s what South African writer and Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer (November 20, 1923–July 13, 2014) explores in a 1976 essay titled “A Writer’s Freedom” from her altogether magnificent monograph Telling Times: Writing and Living, 1954–2008 (public library).

Gordimer writes:

What is a writer’s freedom?

To me it is his* right to maintain and publish to the world a deep, intense, private view of the situation in which he finds his society. If he is to work as well as he can, he must take, and be granted, freedom from the public conformity of political interpretation, morals and tastes.

[…]

All that the writer can do, as a writer, is to go on writing the truth as he sees it.

This act of truth-writing, however, has often landed writers on the wrong side of political favor — one need only look at the fate of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, or Nabokov’s Lolitigation lament, or the travesty of censoring Maurice Sendak. After all, censorship exists, in the words of George Bernard Shaw, to “prevent anyone from challenging current conceptions and existing institutions” and yet progress itself is predicated on such challenging. Gordimer considers the necessity of this potential risk for the truth-seeking writer:

Bannings and banishments are terrible known hazards a writer must face, and many have faced, if the writer belongs where freedom of expression, among other freedoms, is withheld, but sometimes creativity is frozen rather than destroyed. A Thomas Mann survives exile to write a Dr Faustus; a Pasternak smuggles Dr Zhivago out of a ten-year silence; a Solzhenitsyn emerges with his terrible world intact in the map of The Gulag Archipelago

In a sentiment that calls to mind George Orwell’s timeless admonition against the cowardice of self-censorship, Gordimer adds:

Through all these vicissitudes, real writers go on writing the truth as they see it. And they do not agree to censor themselves . . . You can burn the books, but the integrity of creative artists is not incarnate on paper any more than on canvas – it survives so long as the artist himself cannot be persuaded, cajoled or frightened into betraying it.

All this, hard though it is to live, is the part of the writer’s fight for freedom the world finds easiest to understand.

The first Little Free Library, from Robert Dawson's photography project 'The Public Library.' Click image for more.

And yet, Gordimer argues, there is another kind of freedom at least as essential to the integrity of the writer and even more elusive:

That other, paradoxically wider, composite freedom — the freedom of his private view of life — may be threatened by the very awareness of what is expected of him. And often what is expected of him is conformity to an orthodoxy of opposition.

Echoing John Steinbeck’s conviction that the writer can’t “work for other people” and doesn’t “do good work with their ideas,” Gordimer adds:

There will be those who regard him as their mouthpiece; people whose ideals, as a human being, he shares, and whose cause, as a human being, is his own. They may be those whose suffering is his own. His identification with, admiration for, and loyalty to these set up a state of conflict within him. His integrity as a human being demands the sacrifice of everything to the struggle put up on the side of free men. His integrity as a writer goes the moment he begins to write what he ought to write.

This integrity, Gordimer points out, isn’t only a matter of voicing dissenting opinions — rather, it is as necessary when it comes to agendas and viewpoints with which the writer agrees:

The fact is, even on the side of the angels, a writer has to reserve the right to tell the truth as he sees it, in his own words, without being accused of letting the side down.

[…]

When a writer claims these kinds of freedom for himself, he begins to understand the real magnitude of his struggle.

That struggle is ultimately about discerning new directions for the world to move in, and then moving it toward them — because, as E.B. White remarked several years earlier, “writers do not merely reflect and interpret life, they inform and shape life.” Gordimer writes:

That rare marvel, an innovator, should be received with shock and excitement. And his impact may set off people in new directions of their own. But the next innovator rarely, I would almost say never, comes from his imitators, those who create a fashion in his image. Not all worthwhile writing is an innovation, but I believe it always comes from an individual vision, privately pursued. The pursuit may stem from a tradition, but a tradition implies a choice of influence, whereas a fashion makes the influence of the moment the only one for all who are contemporary to it.

Without freedom, she argues, that pursuit is impossible:

A writer needs all these kinds of freedom, built on the basic one of freedom from censorship. He does not ask for shelter from living, but for exposure to it without possibility of evasion. He is fiercely engaged with life on his own terms, and ought to be left to it, if anything is to come of the struggle. Any government, any society — any vision of a future society — that has respect for its writers must set them as free as possible to write in their own various ways, in their own choices of form and language, and according to their own discovery of truth.

[…]

Commitment and creative freedom become one.

Illustration by Giselle Potter for Gertrude Stein's posthumously published alphabet book. Click image for more.

Gordimer revisits the subject two decades later, in another essay from the collection titled “The Status of the Writer in the World Today.” In the interim between the two essays, three of her own books were banned by South Africa’s apartheid government. Exhorting us to recognize the role of the writer “as both praise-singer and social critic,” she writes:

What is status, to us [writers]? First — it never can go without saying — the primary status must be freedom of expression. That is the oxygen of our creativity. Without it, many talents on our continent have struggled for breath; some have choked; and some have been lost to us in that other climate, the thin air of exile.

[…]

Freedom to write. We have that status; and we are fully aware that it is one that we must be always alert to defend against all political rationalisations and pleas to doctor our search for the truth into something more palatable to those who make the compromises of power.

Quite apart from the supreme issue of human freedom, our claim to freedom to write has a significance, a benefit to society that only writers can give. Our books are necessary … they show both the writer and his or her people what they are.

Considering “the role of the writer as repository of a people’s ethos” as the ultimate measure of status — rather than “fame and glory, invitations to dine with government ministers” — she adds:

Freedom and its joys, and — to paraphrase Freud — freedom and its discontents, are the ethos of a people for its writers now.

Many more of Gordimer’s enduring and ennobling ideas on literature and life can be found in Telling Times. Complement this particular piece with Voltaire on censorship and comedian Bill Hicks on what freedom of speech really means.

* Gordimer is writing in 1976, when “he” was still being used as the appropriate universal pronoun. Her own legacy, of course, is part of the supreme cultural counterpoint of women’s voices that over the decades have dethroned the universal “he,” rendering it an incomplete and thus inappropriate representation of the human enterprise.

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24 FEBRUARY, 2015

Joan Didion on Hollywood’s Diversity Problem: A Masterpiece from 1968 That Could Have Been Written Today

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“The public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth.”

Over and over, Joan Didion has emerged as an enchantress of nuance — a writer of deep and dimensional wisdom on such undying human issues as self-respect, grief, and the passage of time. Didion has a particular penchant for unraveling issues of social friction and discomfort to reveal that they are merely symptoms, rather than causes, of deeper societal pathologies.

Take Hollywood’s diversity problem, of which the world becomes palpably aware every year as the Academy Awards roll around. (Awards are, after all, a vehicle for rewarding the echelons of a system’s values, and the paucity of people of color among nominees and winners speaks volumes about how much that system values diversity — something that renders hardly surprising a recent Los Angeles Times survey, which found that the Oscar-dispensing academy is primarily male and 94% white.) Nearly half a century before today’s crescendoing public outcries against Hollywood’s masculine whiteness, Didion addressed the issue with unparalleled intellectual elegance.

In an essay titled “Good Citizens,” written between 1968 and 1970 and found in the altogether indispensable The White Album (public library) — which also gave us Didion on driving as a transcendent experience — she turns her perceptive and prescient gaze to Hollywood’s diversity problem and the vacant pretensions that both beget and obscure it.

Joan Didion by Julian Wasser

Shortly after the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Didion writes:

Politics are not widely considered a legitimate source of amusement in Hollywood, where the borrowed rhetoric by which political ideas are reduced to choices between the good (equality is good) and the bad (genocide is bad) tends to make even the most casual political small talk resemble a rally.

And because this is Didion — a writer of extraordinary subtlety and piercing precision, who often tells half the story in the telling itself — she paints a backdrop of chronic superficiality as she builds up to the overt point:

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” someone said to me at dinner not long ago, and before we had finished our fraises des bois he had advised me as well that “no man is an island.” As a matter of fact I hear that no man is an island once or twice a week, quite often from people who think they are quoting Ernest Hemingway. “What a sacrifice on the altar of nationalism,” I heard an actor say about the death in a plane crash of the president of the Philippines. It is a way of talking that tends to preclude further discussion, which may well be its intention: the public life of liberal Hollywood comprises a kind of dictatorship of good intentions, a social contract in which actual and irreconcilable disagreement is as taboo as failure or bad teeth, a climate devoid of irony.

She recounts one event particularly painful to watch — a staged debate between the writer William Styron and the actor Ossie Davis. Davis had asserted that Styron’s Pulitzer-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, in which the black protagonist falls in love with a white woman, had encouraged racism. With her characteristic clarity bordering on wryness, Didion notes: “It was Mr. Styron’s contention that it had not.” She sums up the evening with one famous spectator’s response:

James Baldwin sat between them, his eyes closed and his head thrown back in understandable but rather theatrical agony.

Didion reflects on what that particular event revealed — and still reveals — about Hollywood’s general vacancy of any real commitment to social justice:

[The evening’s] curious vanity and irrelevance stay with me, if only because those qualities characterize so many of Hollywood’s best intentions. Social problems present themselves to many of these people in terms of a scenario, in which, once certain key scenes are licked (the confrontation on the courthouse steps, the revelation that the opposition leader has an anti-Semitic past, the presentation of the bill of participants to the President, a Henry Fonda cameo), the plot will proceed inexorably to an upbeat fade. Marlon Brando does not, in a well-plotted motion picture, picket San Quentin in vain: what we are talking about here is faith in a dramatic convention. Things “happen” in motion pictures. There is always a resolution, always a strong cause-effect dramatic line, and to perceive the world in those terms is to assume an ending for every social scenario… If the poor people march on Washington and camp out, there to receive bundles of clothes gathered on the Fox lot by Barbra Streisand, then some good must come of it (the script here has a great many dramatic staples, not the least of them in a sentimental notion of Washington as an open forum, cf. Mr. Deeds Goes to Washington), and doubts have no place in the story.

The unwelcome presence of doubt is, of course, the fatal diagnosis of all systems that warp reality and flatten its complexities by leaving no room for nuance — systems like the Hollywood of that era, which has hardly changed in ours, and the mainstream media of today, who tend to depict the world by the same “dramatic convention” of clickbait and sensationalism adding nothing to the actual conquest of meaning.

Reflecting on Hollywood’s “vanity of perceiving social life as a problem to be solved by the good will of individuals,” Didion recounts the particular pretensions she observed at a national convention of the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce, commonly known as Jaycees — a leadership and civic engagement training organization for young people — held at LA’s Miramar Hotel:

In any imaginative sense Santa Monica seemed an eccentric place for the United States Junior Chamber of Commerce to be holding a national congress, but there they were, a thousand delegates and wives, gathered in the Miramar Hotel for a relentless succession of keynote banquets and award luncheons and prayer breakfasts and outstanding-young-men forums… I was watching the pretty young wife of one delegate pick sullenly at her lunch. “Let someone else eat this slop,” she said suddenly, her voice cutting through not only the high generalities of the occasion but The New Generation’s George M. Cohan medley as well.

It bears noting that this took place a decade and a half before the Jaycees began accepting women as members, so any female presence at the convention was invariably allotted to such pretty young wives — including this one, whom Didion proceeded to see “sobbing into a pink napkin.”

Illustration from 'How to Be a Nonconformist,' 1968. Click image for more.

But what makes Didion’s essay doubly poignant is the way in which she gets at — obliquely, unambiguously — how Hollywood’s chronic biases permeate the rest of society. Having gone to the Jaycees national convention “in search of the abstraction lately called ‘Middle America,'” she found instead a mirroring of Hollywood’s superficial and performative approaches to social justice issues. Didion writes:

At first I thought I had walked out of the rain and into a time warp: the Sixties seemed not to have happened.

Nearly half a century later, one can’t help but feel pulled into the very same time warp — Didion could have written this today:

They knew that this was a brave new world and [the Jaycees] said so. It was time to “put brotherhood into action,” to “open our neighborhoods to those of all colors.” It was time to “turn attention to the cities,” to think about youth centers and clinics and the example set by a black policeman-preacher in Philadelphia who was organizing a decency rally patterned after Miami’s. It was time to “decry apathy.”

The word “apathy” cropped up again and again, an odd word to use in relation to the past few years, and it was a while before I realized what it meant. It was not simply a word remembered from the Fifties, when most of these men had frozen their vocabularies: it was a word meant to indicate that not enough of “our kind” were speaking out. It was a cry in the wilderness, and this resolute determination to meet 1950 head-on was a kind of refuge. Here were some people who had been led to believe that the future was always a rational extension of the past, that there would ever be world enough and time enough for “turning attention,” for “problems” and “solutions.” Of course they would not admit their inchoate fears that the world was not that way any more. Of course they would not join the “fashionable doubters.” Of course they would ignore the “pessimistic pundits.” Late one afternoon I sat in the Miramar lobby, watching the rain fall and the steam rise off the heated pool outside and listening to a couple of Jaycees discussing student unrest and whether the “solution” might not lie in on-campus Jaycee groups. I thought about this astonishing notion for a long time. It occurred to me finally that I was listening to a true underground, to the voice of all those who have felt themselves not merely shocked but personally betrayed by recent history. It was supposed to have been their time. It was not.

Reading Didion’s astute observations many decades later, at a time when so many of us feel just as “personally betrayed by recent history,” reaffirms the The White Album as absolutely essential reading for modern life — not merely because its title is all the more uncomfortably perfect in light of this particular essay, but because every single essay in it directs the same unflinching perceptiveness at some timeless and timely aspect of our world.

Complement it with Didion’s reading list of all-time favorite books and her answers to the Proust Questionnaire.

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05 FEBRUARY, 2015

The People’s Platform: An Essential Manifesto for Reclaiming Our Cultural Commons in the Age of Commerce

By:

“We are embedded beings who create work in a social context, toiling shared soil in the hopes that our labor bears fruit. It is up to all of us whether this soil is enriched or depleted, whether it nurtures diverse and vital produce or allows predictable crops to take root and run rampant.”

C.S. Lewis memorably wrote that art and philosophy — in other words, the substance of what we call human culture — have no survival value but, rather, give value to survival. The kind of value he had in mind, of course, was spiritual. And yet half a century later, we’ve stifled our way into a system that assesses art and philosophy and human culture for their economic value as market commodities — they’ve been reduced to that depressingly derogatory term for cultural material: content.

One chilly autumn afternoon a few years ago, I sat on a park bench in Brooklyn with writer, activist, documentary filmmaker, and kindred cautious idealist Astra Taylor to talk about how and why we got here, and what we can do to save the ennobling thought-things that give value to human survival. Ours was one of many conversations Taylor had in the process of researching and writing her magnificent and enormously important manifesto for the survival of our cultural commons, The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital Age (public library) — a look at what the internet has promised us, how it has failed us in delivering on those promises, and what we can do to shed its burdens and carry its blessings forward.

Illustration from Theodor Nelson's pioneering 1974 book 'Computer Lib | Dream Machines' found in '100 Ideas that Changed the Web.' Click image for more.

Taylor writes:

As a consequence of the Internet, it is assumed that traditional gatekeepers will crumble and middlemen will wither. The new orthodoxy envisions the Web as a kind of Robin Hood, stealing audience and influence away from the big and giving to the small. Networked technologies will put professionals and amateurs on an even playing field, or even give the latter an advantage. Artists and writers will thrive without institutional backing, able to reach their audiences directly. A golden age of sharing and collaboration will be ushered in, modeled on Wikipedia and open source software.

In many wonderful ways this is the world we have been waiting for. [But] in some crucial respects the standard assumptions about the Internet’s inevitable effects have misled us.

The argument regarding the internet’s impact, Taylor notes, has become bereft of nuance and has settled into one of two camps from which soundbites are fired at the other — techno-skeptics, in the tradition of Alvin Toffler, admonish us that we’ve become a herd of “skimmers, staying in the shallows of incessant stimulation,” while techno-optimists assure us that we’re “evolving into expert synthesizers and multitaskers, smarter than ever before.” Such polarization — like all polarization — seems rather impoverishing. Much of it pits technology against humanism which, as Krista Tippett has elegantly asserted of science and spirituality, ask wholly different questions rather than providing different answers to the same question. Indeed, Taylor targets this with exquisite precision:

These questions are important, but the way they are framed tends to make technology too central, granting agency to tools while sidestepping the thorny issue of the larger social structures in which we and our technologies are embedded.

Newsgirls deliver newspapers in 1910. Public domain photograph by Lewis Hine (Library of Congress)

She notes that “new media” is quite a misnomer, for it implies both a counterpoint to and a supplanting of “old media” — and yet this is hardly the case. I, too, have often marveled at how much of Old Media’s legacy we’ve simply replicated and transposed onto new platforms — take, for instance, a newspaper editor’s remarkably prescient 1923 lament about commerce taking over cultural responsibility in journalism, or E.B. White’s 1975 admonition about the evils of corporate sponsorship in public media. Taylor agrees:

Many of the problems that plagued our media system before the Internet was widely adopted have carried over into the digital domain — consolidation, centralization, and commercialism — and will continue to shape it. Networked technologies do not resolve the contradictions between art and commerce, but rather make commercialism less visible and more pervasive… The pressure to be quick, to appeal to the broadest possible public, to be sensational, to seek easy celebrity, to be attractive to corporate sponsors—these forces multiply online where every click can be measured, every piece of data mined, every view marketed against. Originality and depth eat away at profits online, where faster fortunes are made by aggregating work done by others, attracting eyeballs and ad revenue as a result.

And yet her point is “not trying to deny the transformative nature of the Internet, but rather to recognize that we’ve lived with it long enough to ask tough questions” — questions that call on us to respond not with cynicism and resignation but with mobilized hope and lucid idealism as we peer forward into a more promising future for what proto-internet pioneer Vannevar Bush so poetically termed “the common record.” Taylor writes:

The truth is subtler: technology alone cannot deliver the cultural transformation we have been waiting for; instead, we need to first understand and then address the underlying social and economic forces that shape it. Only then can we make good on the unprecedented opportunity the Internet offers and begin to make the ideal of a more inclusive and equitable culture a reality. If we want the Internet to truly be a people’s platform, we will have to work to make it so.

Paul Otlet's Mundaneum, an early-twentieth-century analog internet human-powered by a primarily female staff who answered queries by hand. Click image for more.

For one thing, Taylor admonishes that the artists, writers, and other craftspeople of culture are being shortchanged by the machinery of commercial interest and corporate power. She writes:

Wealth and power are shifting to those who control the platforms on which all of us create, consume, and connect.

[…]

Cultural products are increasingly valuable only insofar as they serve as a kind of “signal generator” from which data can be mined. The real profits flow not to the people who fill the platforms where audiences congregate and communicate — the content creators — but to those who own them.

[…]

During this crucial moment of cultural and economic restructuring, artists themselves have been curiously absent from a conversation dominated by executives, academics, and entrepreneurs.

Some artists, of course, are raising their heads and challenging the this-is-how-it-should-be-done-because-this-is-how-it-has-always-been-done paradigm of culture’s relationship with commerce. And yet, pointing to another realm where we’ve lost our sense of nuance, Taylor argues that in our fetishism of openness at all costs — that is, at no cost — we’ve forgotten the actual, physical, inescapably tangible costs of creating what we designate by the ethereal term “culture.” In the final chapter, aptly titled “Drawing a Line,” she writes:

When we talk about the cultural commons, it should be self-evident that production is a precondition of access. An article needs to be researched and written before it can be read; a canvas must be painted before it can be shown. Yet we live in a society oddly reluctant to recognize that this is the case. Dominant economic theories emphasize exchange: the value of a good has nothing to do with how it was made but, instead, the price it can command in the marketplace.

And when we try to break with the market to talk about gift economies, bestowing as opposed to buying, we still focus on the way things circulate rather than how they are created. More often than not, those who speak enthusiastically about the cultural commons stay safely inside what Karl Marx called “the noisy sphere” of consumption, “where everything takes place … in full view of everyone,” instead of descending into “the hidden abode of production,” which in fact shapes our world even if we choose to look the other way.

This means we are telling only half the story.

For a glimpse of the other half, for instance, consider the fact that by this point — nearly nine years into it — just keeping Brain Pickings functionally running costs me more than my rent each month. How much it costs to produce a single Radiolab episode or to merely keep Wikipedia’s servers going or to care for the millions of books preserved by The New York Public Library, I can only imagine — which is why I and many others donate to these creators and stewards of culture regularly. On top of these purely technical costs, of course, is the human labor — the time, thought, and love of bringing something to life — something meant to exist not because it is marketable but because it matters.

Embroidered map of the infant Internet in 1983 by Debbie Millman (courtesy of the artist)

Taylor captures this ecosystem of costs that create value beautifully:

A material reality supports the digital commons in all its facets: hardware, infrastructure, and content.

[…]

Creativity and commerce have a complex relationship and, in many ways, a necessary one. Nonetheless, a market in creative goods is different from creative marketing, and the latter is growing at the expense of the former. The mercantile climate has moved to the center; what was once an attribute has become a dominant feature.

Half a century after E.F. Schumacher exhorted us to stop prioritizing products over people and consumption over creativity, Taylor argues that the root cause of disturbing the vital balance between the two by drowning culture in commerce is the rise of ad-supported media. She considers the corner into which we’ve squeezed ourselves by relinquishing creative integrity for commercial profit:

The technology is still in its infancy, but we should pause to reflect on the profound nature of this transformation. Right now there are artists who agonize over whether to license their work for commercial purposes, and yet we have a situation where our very likeness is used to hawk doughnuts or shoes or whatever it may be without explicit permission being granted first. There are people going deeply into debt so they can work as journalists and truth tellers, but “sponsored content” is what they are told will pay the bills.

She worries that these changes will permeate the very fabric of what we believe is possible, and slowly warp our social standards:

Why worry about selling out when you are already an ad and have been your whole life? Why fret over the ethics of promoting yourself when you are already being used to promote something else? Under the “open” model, where the distinction between commercial and noncommercial has melted away, everything is for sale. When there is no distinction between inner and outer, our bonds with family and friends, our private desires and curiosities, all become commodities. We are sold out in advance, branded whether we want to be or not.

[…]

While it may look like we are getting something for nothing, advertising-financed culture is not free. We pay environmentally, we pay with our self-esteem, and we pay with our attention, privacy, and knowledge.

And yet all is not lost — far from it. While Taylor’s critique is not of the soft, compliment-sandwich kind, it is also inherently a beacon of hope rather than despair. She offers a number of strategies for fortifying our cultural commons and possible directions for expanding the horizon of the possible and living up to our potential as a species capable of honorable and ennobling deeds:

One positive step may be something deceptively simple: an effort to raise consciousness about something we could call sustainable culture. “Culture” and “cultivate” share the same root, after all: “Coulter,” a cognate of “culture,” means the blade of a plowshare. It is not a reach to align the production and consumption of culture with the growing appreciation of skilled workmanship and artisanal goods, of community food systems and ethical economies. The aims of this movement may be extended and adapted to describe cultural production and exchange, online and off.

[…]

We are embedded beings who create work in a social context, toiling shared soil in the hopes that our labor bears fruit. It is up to all of us whether this soil is enriched or depleted, whether it nurtures diverse and vital produce or allows predictable crops to take root and run rampant. The notion of sustainable culture forces us to recognize that the digital has not rendered all previously existing institutions obsolete. It also challenges us to figure out how to improve them.

In the remainder of The People’s Platform, which is at once immensely important and full of Taylor’s deeply enjoyable prose, she goes on to examine how we can outgrow the limiting models we’ve inherited and find more ambitious new ways of making our world more beautiful, intelligent, and full of meaning. Complement it with this history of 100 ideas that changed the web, then revisit Belgian idealist Paul Otlet’s early-twentieth-century vision for a democratic “internet” and dear old E.B. White on the role and responsibility of the writer.

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06 JANUARY, 2015

Albert Einstein’s Little-Known Correspondence with W.E.B. Du Bois on Race and Racial Justice

By:

“Professor Einstein is not a mere mathematical mind. He is a living being, sympathetic with all human advance… and he hates race prejudice because as a Jew he knows what it is.”

Albert Einstein endures as “the quintessential modern genius” for his seminal contributions to science, but he was also a great champion of human rights. In fact, despite having taken a backseat to his scientific legacy, Einstein’s strong humanistic and political convictions are no less notable and revolutionary amid the assumptions of his era. Nowhere do they shine more brilliantly than in his lesser-known exchanges with people of radically different backgrounds and beliefs, always deeply thoughtful, irrepressibly respectful, and driven by an earnest desire for mutual understanding and encouragement — including his conversation with the Indian philosopher Tagore about science and spirituality, his correspondence with Freud about violence, peace, and human nature, and his letter to a little girl in South Africa on why her gender shouldn’t hold her back from pursuing science.

Some might assume that Einstein’s compassionate outlook and unflinching commitment to equality were shaped by his own experience of being on the receiving end of history’s deadliest anti-Semitism. When Hitler took over Germany on January 30, 1933 — twelve years after Einstein earned the Nobel Prize, which had already exposed him to anti-Semitism — he had just left Berlin with his wife Elsa to spend their third winter at CalTech, where Einstein had been invited as visiting faculty. The trip may well have saved his life — mere months later, the situation in Germany became inhumane, then gruesomely lethal, for Jews.

Finding himself a reluctant refugee, Einstein — whom the great author and physicist C.P. Snow declared “Hitler’s greatest public enemy” — proclaimed in the press:

As long as I have any choice in the matter, I shall live only in a country where civil liberty, tolerance and equality of all citizens before the law prevail.

But Einstein’s stance was deeper than the particularities of his own experience and predated that. In 1930, the legendary American author, sociologist, historian, and civil rights icon W.E.B. Du Bois reached out to Einstein for a contribution to The Crisis, the official journal of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Du Bois had co-founded NAACP in 1909, two decades after becoming the first African-American to receive a doctorate from Harvard, where he had studied under and been greatly influenced by the pioneering philosopher and psychologist William James.

Dr. Du Bois’s correspondence with Einstein, included in Einstein on Race and Racism (public library), begins with this magnificently courteous invitation from October 14, 1931 — a sublime manifestation of why Virginia Woolf considered letter writing “the humane art,” and a wistful reminder of how different modern life would be if we corresponded with each other in this way — originally written in German and sent while the scientist was still living in Berlin, where Du Bois had studied on a fellowship during his graduate work:

Sir:

I am taking the liberty of sending you herewith some copies of THE CRISIS magazine. THE CRISIS is published by American Negroes and in defense of the citizenship rights of 12 million people descended from the former slaves of this country. We have just reached our 21st birthday. I am writing to ask if in the midst of your busy life you could find time to write us a word about the evil of race prejudice in the world. A short statement from you of 500 to 1,000 words on this subject would help us greatly in our continuing fight for freedom.

With regard to myself, you will find something about me in “Who’s Who in America.” I was formerly a student of Wagner and Schmoller in the University of Berlin.

I should greatly appreciate word from you.

Very sincerely yours,

W. E. B. Du Bois

Two weeks later, 51-year-old Einstein replied, with equal courtesy, in the affirmative:

My Dear Sir!

Please find enclosed a short contribution for your newspaper. Because of my excessive workload I could not send a longer explanation.

With Distinguished respect,

Albert Einstein

Du Bois translated Einstein’s essay himself and introduced it in The Crisis with the following laudatory “Note from the Editor”:

The author, Albert Einstein, is a Jew of German nationality. He was born in Wurttemburg in 1879 and educated in Switzerland. He has been Professor of Physics at Zurich and Prague and is at present director of the Kaiser-Wilhelm Physical Institute at Berlin. He is a member of the Royal Prussian Academy of Science and of the British Royal Society. He received the Nobel Prize in 1921 and the Copley Medal in 1925.

Einstein is a genius in higher physics and ranks with Copernicus, Newton and Kepler. His famous theory of Relativity, advanced first in 1905, is revolutionizing our explanation of physical phenomenon and our conception of Motion, Time and Space.

But Professor Einstein is not a mere mathematical mind. He is a living being, sympathetic with all human advance. He is a brilliant advocate of disarmament and world Peace and he hates race prejudice because as a Jew he knows what it is. At our request, he has sent this word to THE CRISIS with “Ausgezeichneter Hochachtung” (“Distinguished respect”).

Einstein's original essay for 'The Crisis' (W.E.B. Du Bois Papers, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Massachusetts Amherst Libraries)

Although titled “To the American Negro” — a phrase confined to both specific geography and, by virtue of its dated language, a bygone era — Einstein’s short essay bears enduring resonance for all varieties of oppression, discrimination, and the woeful pathology of in-group/out-group polarization to which humanity is so easily susceptible. (Another duo of humanists, Tolstoy and Gandhi, explored that lamentable tendency of ours in their own little-known correspondence.) In a sentiment that calls to mind Kierkegaard’s poignant 19th-century remarks about minority-majority dynamics, Einstein writes:

It seems to be a universal fact that minorities, especially when their Individuals are recognizable because of physical differences, are treated by majorities among whom they live as an inferior class. The tragic part of such a fate, however, lies not only in the automatically realized disadvantage suffered by these minorities in economic and social relations, but also in the fact that those who meet such treatment themselves for the most part acquiesce in the prejudiced estimate because of the suggestive influence of the majority, and come to regard people like themselves as inferior. This second and more important aspect of the evil can be met through closer union and conscious educational enlightenment among the minority, and so emancipation of the soul of the minority can be attained.

The determined effort of the American Negroes in this direction deserves every recognition and assistance.

Albert Einstein

Einstein on Race and Racism goes on to undo the “historical amnesia” about the iconic scientist’s passionate commitment on antiracism, both public and private, including the forgotten history of his friendship with the African-American singer, actor, and civil rights activist Paul Robeson. Complement it with Margaret Mead, writing thirty years later, on the root of racism and how to counter it, then revisit Einstein on the fickleness of fame, the secret of learning anything, and why we’re alive.

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